Instead, writer-director Alex Garland has stripped down and smoothed out VanderMeer’s elusive, inexplicable story, making it more conventional and focusing it on the things that studio movies today are good at. We see, in flashbacks both charming and piercing, the backstory of the biologist (played by Natalie Portman). We see the team of scientists, all women (among them Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson), winningly bond before their mission. We see CGI beasts and get treated to/assaulted by jump scares. We behold two strong instances of found-footage horror on equipment left by the previous expeditions into what is called “Area X.” We watch the cast members pick their way through nature gone wrong, through woods and seas kabooming with a biodiversity so flamboyant that you might wish you were given more time to gape at it — to soak in it.
So, this is no botch job. It’s often inspired in its cutting and composition, and Garland (Ex Machina) has crafted sequences of strange splendor, including a too-short cosmic light show. But Hollywood’s not much for ambiguity, and this Annihilation is as thick with on-the-fly explanations of what’s going on as the recent Jumanji.